Christmas is such a magical time of year. There are so many stories, myths, legends, and history around this holiday, and it’s no wonder. Christmastime brings hope back into our hearts. Hope that this world isn’t lost. Hope that this is the year that peace will reign over the earth. Because Christmas is when we celebrate the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Keeping Christ in Christmas
Jesus didn’t come as people had imagined, but exactly as God had intended, humbly, unassumingly, in a manger. The Jews had prayed for a savior from Rome’s oppression, but God had a bigger plan. He sent Jesus to save the world from sin’s oppression. And because Jesus came to save us all, we remember His coming each year on Christmas Day.
So why, then, do we celebrate Christmas with traditions that don’t have a lot to do with the Biblical side of the story? Two thousand years is quite a long time, enough time for stories and traditions to wax and wane, giving us the way that we celebrate today.
There are many different websites that you can read up about why we celebrate on December 25, how the Christians moved the celebration of Christ’s birth to coincide with the ancients’ winter solstice celebration. But today, I was curious about where our modern traditions started, especially the most prominent ones, so I set about to research the history behind Santa, the Christmas tree, and my all time favorite, Christmas carols.
Where Did the Legend of Santa Claus Come From?
The legend of Santa Claus dates back to the birth of Saint Nicholas, who is thought to have been born around 280 A.D. in Myra, which is now modern-day Turkey. Over the years, Saint Nicholas came to be known as the protector of children. It was Dutch immigrants who brought St. Nicholas, better known as Sinter Klaas, to America. When a New York newspaper reported on their December 6 Feast Day celebration, the modern-day legend of Santa Claus was born.
The prevailing vision of Santa (with the white beard, red coat, and flying reindeer) came about in 1881. A political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, published an illustration in Harper’s Weekly based on the poem, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”, and the jolly man was given the face that we know and love today. Written by Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, in 1822, nowadays we know the story as “The Night Before Christmas”.
There are, of course, many other accounts about Santa from around the world. Christkind or Kris Kringle have their roots in Swiss and German history. Jultomten is a jolly elf who delivers gifts in Scandinavia in his goat drawn sleigh. Pere Noel fills the stockings in France. Babouschka is an elderly woman from Russian legend whose story tells that she misled the wise men so that they couldn’t find Jesus. She spends Christmas Eve delivering gifts to children in hopes that one of them is baby Jesus, and she might be forgiven one day. And in Italy, La Befana is a kind witch who rides a broom to deliver presents to children via their chimneys.
That Magical Christmas Tree
The roots of decorating with plants that stay green all year long can be traced back to the pagan practices of the ancients. However, the Christmas tree as we know it can be attributed to 16th century Germany, when Christians first started to decorate trees in their homes. Though early Americans found Christmas trees to be an oddity, they slowly gained popularity after the first one was displayed in a German Pennsylvanian home in 1830.
The first Christmas tree decorations consisted of hand crafted ornaments, along with edible treats such as apples, nuts, marzipan cookies and strung popcorn, dyed and interlaced with berries. The first Christmas tree toppers were figures of baby Jesus, but as time went on, an angel took its place, to commemorate the angels who spoke to the shepherds. When we place a star on the tree, it is to remember the star that the Wise Men followed to see the Savior.
Here We Come a Wassailing…
Carols have been sung for thousands of years, but only in the last few hundred have they been attributed to Christmas. The original meaning of carol was “to dance to song”. It was the early Christians who first brought carols to Christmastime when they changed the words of Winter Solstice songs to those celebrating Christ. It was in 129 AD that the first Christmas carol, “Angel’s Hymn” was sung at a Christmas service in Rome.
Wassailing began as early as the 1400s. It was the custom of going door to door, visiting neighbors with tidings of good cheer and a song or two, in hopes of receiving a gift in return. From this tradition comes the song “Here We Come a Wassailing” (or caroling in modern times), and the line from “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” about wanting some figgy-pudding. Wassailing was often done at Christmas and New Year’s, though it wasn’t limited to these holidays, and often happened all year round.
In the 19th century, after Christmas started to become more commercialized, caroling became more exclusively associated with this particular holiday. Many carols that we sing today, such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, The First Noel, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and Joy to the World can all be attributed to this period.
Christmas In Your Corner of the World
Christmas is celebrated all over the world, in different ways, on different days. In some places, it’s not even known as Christmas. There is Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Chinese New Year, and others, but everywhere, these celebrations all come down to the same thing. Bringing our fellow man well-wishes, joy, and happiness.
What holiday does your family celebrate? Please leave us a comment below, we would love to hear more about your customs. And if you’re curious about our family’s traditions, feel free to check out last week’s post on teaching our children the spirit of Christmas.